Muhammad Ali officially became “The Greatest” 50 years ago Tuesday when he stopped the heavily favored champion Charles “Sonny” Liston to win the heavyweight title for the first time.
But was the fight, which ended in surprising and controversial fashion, fixed? The rumors persist even 50 years later, not helped by the shady connections that Liston carried throughout is career.
Or, were the cries of “fix” simply a reaction to a loud, young, African-American fighter who openly bragged of his greatness and brazenly taunted opponents, who went into the fight a heavy underdog? Liston was also African-American of course, but while he struck a frightening figure in the ring, he was closed-mouthed outside of it. In fact, the 24th of 25 children, Liston grew up in abject poverty and remained illiterate his whole life.
The victory was the first of three heavyweight championships for Muhammad Ali, who when he fought Liston on February 25, 1964, in Miami, Florida, was a 22-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky who still went by his birth name of Cassius Clay.
Though he had won a gold medal a a light heavyweight at the Rome Olympics in 1960, the young soon-to-be Muhammad Ali as a professional boxer was far better known for his mouth than his fists, insulting opponents and brashly predicting his own victories before almost every fight, sometimes in rhymed verse.
When he fought Liston for the first time in 1964, Muhammad Ali may have been the only one predicting victory. He declared the we would knock out Liston in the eighth round, as a matter of fact. Las Vegas did not agree. Oddsmakers had him as a 7-1 underdog against Liston, a sullen former convict who came into the fight with a record of 35 wins and only one loss — and having knocked out 24 of his previous 28 opponents.
Liston was also known to have ties to the underworld. His contract was once owned by two high-level mobsters, Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo and when he got out of prison in 1952, he was managed by a group connected to another mob figure, John Vitale of St. Louis.
But the young Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali showed no fear of Liston whatsoever, and with good reason. Once the fight started, there was no question of who was the superior fighter. Clay toyed with Liston throughout. His only trouble came in the fifth round, when a substance from Liston’s gloves got into his eyes and temporarily impaired his vision. But he somehow avoided Liston’s crushing right hand.
After the sixth round, Liston refused to come out and fight any further, handing Clay the world heavyweight championship and giving rise to a legend.
Claims that the mob was somehow behind a fix of the fight were rampant, though Liston claimed he injured his shoulder and could not continue. Watching the fight — the whole bout is viewable below — makes it very clear, however, that unless Liston could land a lucky punch on Ali, he was going to lose anyway.
Shortly after the fight, Cassius Clay announced that he had converted to the Muslim religion and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.